On Small States and International Relations

In June 2017, the Qatar Diplomatic Crisis erupted when several countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar.

In an op-ed article in The Straits Times, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), Kishore Mahbubani (also former Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) said that there are lessons for Singapore to learn from the Qatar crisis.

Amongst many, he said that “small states must always behave like small states”. In the same breath, he also admitted that our pioneering leaders such as LKY, S. Rajaratnam and Goh Keng Swee, did not behave as such. Rather, these pioneers behaved as great statesmen, and were respected by other countries as being so.

To read Mahbubani’s article, see ‘Qatar: Big lessons from a small country‘.

In a strong rebuttal, straight-talking ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan, also another former Permanent Secretary at the MFA, clearly explained why Mahbubani is mistaken in his belief that ‘small states must always behave like small states’.

I will attempt to summarise Kausikan’s rebuttal, to see his entire post, see here.

Kausikan reminds Mahbubani that the pioneering leaders of Singapore did not become great statesmen and allowed Singapore to punch above her weight in international affairs simply by ‘being meekly compliant to the major powers’.

They were not reckless, but they did not hesitate to stand up for their ideals and principles when they had to. They risked their lives for their idea of Singapore…

They took the world as it is and were acutely conscious of our size and geography. But they never allowed themselves to be cowed or limited by our size or geography.

— Bilahari Kausikan

Kausikan believes that ‘no one respects a running dog’. To that, I cannot help but agree.

Kausikan also thinks that Mahbubani will ‘no doubt claim that he is only advocating realism’. Indeed, realism is the philosophy in which all countries adhere to, in the anarchic realm of international affairs. Even the United States which appear to advocate liberalism, is practically realist.

However, I believe that even though we must be realists, we cannot be merely realists. We must be idealistic realists. If we are merely realists, and only do what small states ‘can’ do, we will forever be small and insignificant.

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